Thursday, September 22, 2011

Fish Tales - Part 1

Bob Cammarata

A frequent contributor to this blog, Bob Cammarata is a consummate Adventurer, superb wildlife photographer, and a just-plain-wonderful story teller.  So it isn't surprising at all that he can also weave a fascinating "Fish Tale!"  Here he takes you on a harrowing journey that you won't want to miss.  There are some good lessons to learn for anyone planning to emulate the guys in "A River Runs Through It!"  Last weekend I met a woman who had broken her leg in two places when she lost her footing on some slippery river rocks while fly fishing!  Enjoy this quick read and Bob's gorgeous photography as you find out how he lived to tell the story!

Here are links to Bob's previous Tales of Relentless Pursuit:  On Snake Mountain , Next Stop Oz , and When Mother Nature Lends a Hand .


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  Michelle Alton


“It has always been my private conviction that any man who pits his intelligence against a fish and loses, has it coming”.

  John Steinbeck

It’s the narrowest of bridges which separates pastime from obsession. More often than not, only the clinically trained mind can accurately discern between the two. Since my passion for nature photography originally emanated from sport fishing, it’s easy for me to draw parallels between the two.

Both involve acquired species knowledge, the incessant accumulation of expensive tools and gadgets, endless experimentation, travels to exotic locales, and a LOT of patience infused with just the right splinter of luck. Of course, both obsessions are awash with those harrowed tales of misfortune, and of missed opportunities from “…The Ones that Got Away”. So therein lies the fuel for obsession.

As the true sportsman of those earlier years, I vowed to release all of my catches to fight another day so whenever I ventured afield armed with rod and reel, a trusty pocket Instamatic camera always traveled with me so I could document the trophy fish I was releasing. (…mainly to prove to my buddies that I wasn’t just telling fish stories.)

Later, as my angling success and photography improved, I was invited to lecture at local fishing clubs and other public gatherings. To augment my slide shows with a few action sequences, that cheap point-and-shoot camera eventually mutated into a comprehensive 35 mm arsenal…complete with several motor-driven film bodies, a half-dozen lenses, teleconverters, filters, flash units, a compact tripod, and various remote triggering devices. The full pack weighed in excess of 25 lbs. and was carried on my back while wading in slippery streams or negotiating treacherous river rapids.

As one might imagine, working in and around water and slippery rocks with expensive (and heavy) photographic equipment suggested obvious challenges, so preparatory measures had to be implemented. Each photographic component was individually wrapped in a soft felt bag, then double-sealed in a  gallon-sized  Zip-Loc plastic bag. This inexpensive waterproofing system, although quite effective, made shooting “on the fly” literally impossible since it required several minutes of set-up time to find dry ground, pull everything out, then unwrap and assemble the necessary equipment for the intended shot.

But having the ability to “get in the shot” and shoot action sequences while in the field made the extra work worthwhile.

Landing a Small-Mouthed Bass

As all fishermen (and photographers) know, the last thing we want to have happened is to find ourselves lacking requisite tools in situations which cannot be duplicated. This thought was foremost in my mind early one warm summer day as I assembled my gear before venturing south toward the rivers of central Virginia. My goal was to accumulate a few action photos for an up-coming presentation on river smallmouth bass fishing, which was to be held at my local chapter of Trout Unlimited. It was crucial to avoid being many miles from home and find myself saying, “…Boy, I really wish I’d brought my (whatever) for this!”


My river of choice that day was the Rapidan. A large tributary of the Rappahannock, the meandering Rapidan River is characterized by sporadic, raging rapids and an intermittent succession of long, boulder-strewn pools. It’s a large river, by eastern standards, and impossible to wade except during the driest months of late summer. Fortunately for me, the East was experiencing a severe drought that year so the usual strong currents of the rapids were reduced to ankle-deep trickles, which were a cinch to navigate. Despite the drought, the crystal clear pools were still too deep to  wade effectively so I was forced to remain close to the banks where I could safely walk along in waist-deep water, casting into the depths in search of my bronze-backed quarry.

A Hefty Bass
The day was progressing as expected. The wading was relatively easy, a few nice smallmouth bass had succumbed to my presentations and I was successful in getting my photos. My heavy pack was burdensome, but as mentioned before,  it was satisfying knowing that the proper tools were there when needed.

Around mid-day, I found myself half-way through a particularly long pool when I noticed that the water on my side of the riverbank was getting progressively deeper. It soon became apparent that I could wade no further upriver without the bottom of my back-pack getting wet, so I was forced to temporarily abandon the river.

This scenario had happened before, and it was usually an easy chore to climb the riverbank into the woods and walk around the deep stretch until the water was once again, shallow enough to return. …Not this time!

Here on the  Rapidan, the riverbank was a high, near-vertical expanse of slippery red clay.

Those who are familiar with river fishing on foot are aware that wet, felt soles and clay don’t "play well" together. My initial attempt at scaling the slippery slope while holding a fishing rod and wearing the heavy pack was deemed a crusade in futility. It was as if I were running in place but getting nowhere so I opted for an alternate strategy.

I removed the pack and jammed it safely into the only dry spot I could find in the crotch of a large sycamore growing along the river’s edge. The plan was to attempt to scale the muddy clay bank without being weighed down by the pack or the fishing gear. Once into the woods, I could pull the gear up the bank with a piece of rope I had stashed. (I told you that I packed everything.)

Tying one end of the rope to my belt loop, and using the trunk of the big tree as a starting point, I scurried northward toward the top of the slippery bluff. With my hands and feet working in unison, I somehow made it to the top on the very first attempt. I grabbed onto a sapling for support and noticed that the spot I’d chosen to climb out was covered in briars.

As I held on there assessing the situation, my felt-soled wading boots, now covered in mud, lost what little grip there was. I landed on my chest but somehow managed to turn over and began sliding on my butt back down toward the river, plunging vociferously into the water. When I regained my composure, I noticed that my cap had decided not to make the trip. It was waiting for me at the top of the bluff…left dangling there swinging in the breeze like some bizarre trophy amidst the prickly briars which had callously plucked it from my head.

My long time fixation never to abandon a fallen soldier was put to the ultimate test when repeated attempts to reclaim the hill were met with disastrous results…especially since now, I was soaking wet! It wasn’t long after I was completely covered in slick red mud that I decided to give up on trying to climb out of the river or re-claim the cap. My only viable option was to back-track a quarter-mile downriver where the water was shallow enough to cross to the other side.

After cleaning off as much of the slick mud as possible, I re-donned the pack, grabbed the fishing gear and began the arduous trek downriver. It was nearly an hour before I could see that the river was beginning to shallow. Eventually, I arrived at a location where I could clearly see the bottom all the way to the other side and decided that this was likely the best place to cross. The clear water was waist-high as I began the journey toward the middle of the pool and became even shallower as I progressed further.

Yeah…this was a smart move. This would be a breeze!

I was almost to the other shore when the water began to get progressively deeper. With the end so clearly in sight, it was too late to turn back. I had to keep pushing forward.
I removed the pack and balanced it on top of my head. With one hand supporting the pack and the other controlling my wading staff, I gripped my fishing rod firmly in my teeth and began inching forward.

The depth of the gin-clear water was deceptive to the eye and before long, I was in up to my chest. I figured,  “No problem! … I can do this!” When the level of the water reached my neck and began lapping at my chin I began to worry a little but, as the level seemed to be stabilizing at that depth, I pushed forward. “…This is good!…I can do this!”

The end was so close I could almost taste it.  I stood on my toes to squeeze out a few more precious inches and stepped forward…but this time, the bottom was no longer there to meet me!

I plunged under water and came up sputtering and thrashing. My arms were flailing as I gripped the backpack and attempted to swim those precious few more yards toward the shallows. Finally, the bottom was there to meet my feet and I dragged myself out of the water and onto the safety of dry ground. During the melee, I’d dropped my fishing rod but knew it could be easily retrieved later. My primary concern was for my delicate camera equipment, so I immediately pulled everything out and assessed the damages.

Miraculously,  everything survived! The Zip-Loc bags held out the water and everything inside was bone-dry. For that I was relieved but there still remained the task of retrieving the fishing rod which rested on the bottom in nearly seven feet of water. One deep breath and a dive later, I was back at the shore repacking everything for the journey back to the car.

That fateful summer day on the Rapidan River in central Virginia is a reminiscence to be treasured. Times spent in relentless pursuit of what we love is what keeps us going. We should be truly thankful for the experiences and lessons we learn along the way.
(I’m just thankful that I learned how to swim!)

  All photographs by Bob Cammarata

Bonus Photos:
(Note: Some of these were scanned from old Kodachrome slides and are nearly 25 years old.)

Crankbait Bass

Day's End

Flyrod Bluegill

At Streamside

Flyrodding the Susquehanna

Leaping Shad

Fall Fishing on Meadow Run
Water Works

Bob Cammarata's Bio Sketch:

I am a Maryland photographer who specializes in nature in all its forms.

For as long as I can remember, my love for the outdoors has inspired me to capture nature's beauty and intrigue. My primary interests photographically involve traveling the country and getting up close and personal with subjects in nature. My travels have taken me to every corner of the U.S. and parts of Canada but in today’s economy, it’s becoming evermore difficult to plan a road trip unless it’s all downhill!
I prefer to shoot in full-manual 100% of the time because I believe that it affords the ultimate in control and accurately represents the challenges and rewards that this great art has to offer.

I’m an active member of and a regular contributor to their Forums and Newsletters. My photos have been published in business brochures and on Bugguide and other popular wildlife sites and many have been sold as fine art prints.

Lately though, I do this for fun. 

I believe photography to be the therapy which keeps one sane in a crazy world.

Feel free to visit my website at

Please Note:

*** This Blog Needs Your Story! *** If you have a story to post on this theme, contact me, please!  We have no stories on tap at this moment.

Stretch your imagination a little--your story can be about any sort of Relentless Pursuit--fact, fiction, poignant, humorous, or even harrowing!  I'd love to work with you on your story!  It would be wonderful if we could keep this theme going indefinitely!  Or suggest a new theme!  There have been some truly fabulous posts over the last several months. Why not add yours to the anthology?

My sincere thanks to you for stopping by.

Michelle Alton


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Carolyn Fletcher said...

Hilarious as all your stories are. I had the pleasure of hearing some first hand when Bob passed through my area a few years ago. (I still love the bat cave story best.)
I had a sort of similar experience a few years ago involving getting down to water level to shoot a river and not being able to get back up..(Old arms are weak), so I got a kick out of this story.

Joe DiGilio said...

As a life long fisherman, I love fish stories; especially those accompanied by beautiful photos like these. I see you have a guy living inside you that encourages you to take calculated risks too. Most of the time he's on target but sometimes he bites off more than he can chew and we have to suffer the consequences. Nice work Bob. I looking forward to part 2.

Monnie Ryan said...

Great job! I can almost visualize every step (and misstep) in this almost-disastrous adventure!

Dave Phalen said...

Your vivid text allows the reader to be there with you up to our neck in the river. The photogtraphy, as always, is outstanding.

Giff Beaton said...

As usual, Bob makes the story compelling and so vivid you can feel the water lapping at your chin while trying to cross the river. Being either a first rate storyteller or a first-rate photographer is a great achievement, but to be BOTH??? Well done Bob.
Thanks for posting such great stories, I hope you get more from this guy.
Thank you, Giff Beaton, Marietta GA

Anonymous said...

Great story and photos, Bob!! Brings back fond memories of my father who was an avid fly-fisherman, going every chance he could up into the Sierra Nevada mountains...

Robert B.